My research analyzes the relationship between the cognitive processes of science and the aesthetic processes of art, and frames them as distinct, complementary, and mutually irreducible practices. Engaging debates across both philosophy of science and aesthetics, it offers counterarguments against scientism, the view (roughly) that science alone can provide knowledge of the world and its objects. Within the philosophy of science literature, my research challenges the scientistic view that science reveals the true nature of reality by replacing the misguided impressions of commonsense human understanding. Within the aesthetics literature, my research elaborates the indispensable functions of aesthetic and artistic practices in human life and democratically organized communities which cannot be provided by scientific inquiry. The arts are theorized as distinct technologies for navigating the elements of lived experience which fall outside the purview of scientific research, including empathic communication between individuals and the construction of ideals with which to guide collective action. Science and art are thereby theorized as mutually indispensable and complementary activities in sustaining and enriching human environments and knowledge.
My recently completed dissertation on this topic, A Pragmatist Critique of Scientism, provides the foundation for two ongoing research projects: one theoretical project in the philosophy of science, and one applied project in aesthetics and social epistemology. Papers from these research projects have been accepted for presentation at a variety of national and international societies, including the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association, the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable, the American Society for Aesthetics, the Nordic Society for Aesthetics, the Dutch Association of Aesthetics, as well as a number of smaller conferences.
My research has been funded by the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago, the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, and the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, and the Jeffrey Rubinoff Sculpture Park.
Philosophy of Science
My project in philosophy of science engages with recent literature on scientism and empiricism to provide counterarguments to scientistic-empiricist philosophies. My research argues that positions taken on the issue of scientism have historically been, and continue to be, bound up with (a) Enlightenment ontological beliefs concerning the separability of the human mind and the natural world, (b) a consequent bifurcation of human experience into qualities representing ‘reality’ and those representing ‘appearance,’ and (c) an accompanying understanding of scientific inquiry as a process of accurately separating the ‘real’ qualities of the natural world from the mediating distortions of the mind.
Drawing on the pragmatist tradition in philosophy, my research reconstructs a theory of science as a practice which does not so much discover the truer or more fundamental qualities and structure of nature, but is rather an instrumental activity which intentionally reduces its focus to a subset of experiential qualities that exhibit predictable and malleable behavior. This selective focus is undertaken not because such qualities are more real, but because such qualities more effectively enable interventions in environments and beneficial reorganizations of experience. While science’s focus on stable, reliable, and generalizable qualities of nature renders scientific inquiry a powerful instrument, it places certain qualities of lived experience outside science’s purview, making it an important but limited method for understanding and exploring reality and providing solutions to human problems. My research argues that the qualities of experience excluded from scientific focus, which typically face attempts at reduction to categories of scientific analysis—for example, the way aesthetic experience is reduced to brain functions in neuro-aesthetics and moral reasoning is reduced to adaptations in evolutionary accounts of morality—are in fact ways in which nature manifests and undergoes transformation. In doing so, my research offers an alternative ontological framework in which humanistic and aesthetic practices constitute instruments for discovering, communicating, organizing, and reshaping these aspects of shared reality that are distinct but complementary to the instruments of the natural sciences. It thereby challenges the philosophical positions of ontological, epistemological, and methodological or reductive scientism.
My research project in aesthetics and social epistemology develops the positive implications of my views for the role of art in human life, particularly in the context of democratic societies. I develop a concept called ‘aesthetic technology’ to describe the constructive and constitutive democratic world-building that is achieved by the arts and humanities. I argue that art and aesthetic media are well-suited and perhaps indispensable instruments for combatting a particular form of epistemic injustice. This kind of injustice, which has been variously theorized under the name of hermeneutical injustice, hegemony and subalternity, and white ignorance, is commonly understood as a gap in a society’s shared interpretive resources which impinges disproportionately on a particular (typically disadvantaged) group. This gap in shared common sense prevents the lived experience of that group being adequately understood and proportionately considered when deciding on institutional structures and public policy, thereby preventing the adequate functioning of democratic societies. For example, the absence of a shared and established concept of sexual harassment prevented many individuals from being able to understand, communicate, or seek compensation for their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace.
While political philosophers have recommended various forms of citizen education for combatting hermeneutical injustice, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and social epistemologists have pointed to psychological barriers in rendering people amenable to this kind of instruction. Political forms of instruction face reactions of emotional defensiveness, motivated ignorance, and cognitive dissonance–people often resist the suggestion that their ideas and behaviors are (even unintentionally) sexist, racist, etc. In my research, I propose that art and aesthetic media have three formal qualities which enable them to mitigate, and perhaps even overcome, these psychological obstacles and facilitate more fluent democratic communication between diverse citizens. My research argues that aesthetic technologies can effectively communicate the lived experience of diversely situated people without explicit moral judgment, and can conduct powerful social and political critiques and transformations of shared social meanings, institutions, and practices. Aesthetic technology therefore not only communicates but reveals and restructures the ‘common sense’ lived environment, making it an indispensable complement to scientific methods of discovering and restructuring the world.